Tag Archives: parenting

Raising revolutionaries

Sorry things have been a bit quiet over here lately, but I have some news!

I’ve been thinking for a while that I need to streamline my blog – focus in on a more specific area rather than the scattergun approach I’ve used so far. It’s been fun, and it’s been kinda important for me to work out where my head’s at.

But after more than three years, it’s time for a change…

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So I’ve started a new blog. It’s called Raising Revolutionaries, and it focuses in on an area that is becoming increasingly important to me as the world gets more and more difficult to fathom: that is, the ways in which the choices we make as parents and educators can influence a better future. I’ve borrowed from my archives here to chart my growing ideas in these areas since I began this blog back in January 2013, and I’ve finally written my first new post today too if you’d like to have a read.

I’ve been doing lots of reading about parenting and education, building on the masters degree I completed forever ago and thinking seriously about possibly moving towards a PhD. But in the meantime I’m going to play around with some ideas in this new little corner of the internet.

There will be politics, and some strong opinions on parenting (generally of the respectful and progressive variety) and on education (generally with a democratic and child-led air). There will be ongoing reflections on my journey as a mother, and the things that Arthur is teaching me along the way. And hopefully there will be lots of learning – for me, and for you if you’d like to join me.

It feels more than a little bit scary to be starting again from the beginning, so if you’d like to pop over and say hi then I’d really appreciate that. I have a new Facebook page where I’m currently rather lonely, so feel free to link up there too.

I’m going to keep ‘Sophie is…’ online for the foreseeable future but I’m not envisaging any new posts here. So if you’re interested in what I have to say about parenting and education then you know where to find me! And if you’re here for more writerly rambles then watch this space… Hopefully I should have my new writing website up and running very soon!

Global gaslighting

We are living in a world where the truth no longer holds any sway in the pursuit and consolidation of power.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the sordid beginnings of Donald Trump’s America: in the run up to the election the lies were so blatant that it seemed impossible that anyone could take them seriously, but they were dismissed in the name of political rhetoric.

Now that he has taken the reins of the presidency, these lies have become an accepted technique amongst those heading up his regime. There are his tweets, of course – dismissed all too easily as the ravings of a lunatic – but these are given brazen validation by the claims of his team. Sean Spicer insisting that Trump’s embarrassingly small inauguration crowd was the biggest ever seen. Kellyanne Conway inventing a massacre to terrify people into accepting their draconian travel bans.

These outright lies are bad enough on their own, but when combined with accusations of fake news levelled at those who disagree, and the patronising, scathing delivery with which Trumps and his allies address their critics, this segues neatly into classic gaslighting – and gaslighting on a global scale.

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Too many people I know – liberals, intellectuals, people concerned with truth as a foundation for society – are beginning to doubt their sanity. It seems almost impossible to believe that people in such positions of power can lie so brazenly and not get called out for it. This is, of course, part of the point – and is something which has been explored at length in publications as diverse as The Washington Post and Teen Vogue.

Something that I’m not sure people are admitting quite so openly is the extent to which this is happening on this side of the pond too. We all raged at the lies printed on the sides of buses during the Brexit campaign. We all shook our heads in disbelief as Michael Gove dismissed the opinions of experts, repeatedly calling into question the very value of expertise. Doctors rallied against Jeremy Hunt over the false statistics he used to support his calls for a seven day NHS. And then this week, when Jeremy Corbyn is still being hauled over the coals over his decision to whip his party into going against their instincts and vote in favour of leaving the EU, Theresa May sends a letter to the electorate in the run up to a crucial by election lying about both Labour’s clearly stated intentions and the voting behaviour of local Labour MPs.

Increasingly, as in the disunited states of America, our politicians refuse to acknowledge these untruths even when presented with incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. And even if they do, the damage has already been done.

The media, with its almost entirely right-leaning benefactors, whips up these lies into something bigger than themselves, and our democracy is left gasping for breath at the heart of it with no-one knowing what to believe any more.

Increasingly an ability to analyse the media and move beyond the role of unquestioning consumer is a vital skill – and yet Media Studies continues to be sidelined and ridiculed. The internet provides us with almost endless news sources, yet at both ends of the political spectrum these twist and subvert the truth: even if you want to question the status quo, to seek out some sort of integrity at the heart of it all, it is all too easy to get dragged down someone else’s rabbit hole.

And actually the reality of the direction our education system – and thus our society – is taking could not be further from harnessing that ability to question and challenge. Our childrens’ minds are being suffocated with pointless facts, their teachers’ creativity and professionalism stifled with the relentless drive of ever-increasing ‘standards’. Schools themselves are in very real danger of becoming nothing more than factories which churn out young people chastised into obedience and so desperate to carve out their own little place in the world that they will sacrifice all their dreams of a better world in order to do so.

We owe our children more than this.

We have to give our young people – our society – the tools to survive, morally and intellectually, in this post-truth world.

Of course this is not in the interests of those in power. As parents we need to act, to show the young people in our care that they are valued, they are important – and they are powerful.

So much of what is accepted – expected – in modern parenting is about championing compliance above all else. We need to fuel the fire in our children’s bellies, give them the strength and the confidence to be active members of society, and above all move away from the idea that it is by being ‘good’, and by doing what we say, that they are most valued, most loved.

It is pretty clear that, however much it might be painful to accept, our generation is not doing such a great job at building a society that we are happy to live in. I’d like to think, though, with thoughtfulness and care, that there is hope our children might.

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“A portrait of my child once a week, every week, in 2016”

This one (pictured here admiring himself in the mirror post-bath) has been more than a little bit challenging this past week.

He has been seeming super grumpy, which is totally unlike him – quick to get tearful and to lash out, and extra clingy at the same time. He had a cold that lingered for ages, but I’m sure there’s something else going on.

Tonight he started chewing on his hands, and told me that his teeth hurt at the back of his mouth, so maybe it’s his molars.

Or maybe he’s just levelling up again – it definitely feels that way as I watch him learn and play.

Or maybe it’s a bit of all three.

Whatever the reason, it’s been a real test of our parenting strategies, and our commitment to using gentle and respectful techniques to help him grow.

I think we’ve just about managed to hold our course…

Writing at the end of the world

Let’s just take stock of where we’re at.

The UK is hurtling towards an ungainly Brexit, voted for by just over a third of the adult population and headed up by an unelected Prime Minister who is swiftly making Margaret Thatcher look like some sort of socialist saint.

The US, not to be outdone, has voted in a billionaire who openly gloats about tax avoidance and assaulting women. The percentage of the population who are happy about this is even lower than the ‘overwhelming mandate’ leading our country into disaster, and both of our nations, who can thank for their successes generations of immigration and open-mindedness, are battening down the hatches for an extreme right-wing orgy of which Hitler would be proud.

Alongside this, the world is still facing (if not yet facing up to) the worst humanitarian crisis since World War One, military leaders from Russia to China are seemingly putting things in place for yet more global conflict, and our media is having a field day in this post-truth age which has never been less interested in the facts of the situation where there’s a good story to be had.

And don’t even get me started on the travesties that are quietly being played out on our doorsteps behind this international shitstorm. The health and education services that are being dismantled and sold off to the highest bidder, the fat cats getting fatter whilst the poorest and most vulnerable in our society are living hand to mouth, or dying behind a smokescreen of spin.

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It is hard to know what to do.

It is hard to know what the point is of doing anything.

And yet…

I was reminded the other day about why it is I am a writer: why I love books, and art, and culture. Why it matters even more when everything else is falling apart. It was one of those rare moments when the different parts of my life collide: I was at a Torbay Culture Forum meeting to discuss ideas for the future of Shoalstone Pool, and I found myself surrounded by a table of inspiring, talented people who have an unshakable belief in the ability of culture to affect change.

I do, too: that’s why I was passionate about teaching literature and drama and film as well as the more functional elements of literacy and media studies. It is why I trained as an actor many moons ago, and is why I have spent so very many hours over the last few years carefully crafting three novels whilst learning what it is to be a mum.

It is easy to forget, though, at times like this. It is easy to think that it is only by addressing politics head on that you can really make a difference, and that artistic endeavour is frivolous and self-indulgent. I think I’ve been stuck in that space for a while now.

But it’s time to break out. Something clicked when I was away last week, and I have come back with a renewed sense of what I’m doing and why.

I have an idea for a collection of short stories, inspired by this impending sense of doom but altogether more hopeful than that sounds. I’ve been putting pen to paper, playing around with words, and finding the whole process quite therapeutic. As stories emerge I’m planning to set them free into the world and see if any of them can find a home, but I’m feeling strangely liberated by the fact that I’m envisaging this as a collection too, a cohesive work that I might be able to put out there myself someday soon.

I say soon, but I still have no idea where that bigger picture of submissions is taking me. What I do know, though, is I need to own this writer hat, to separate it out from the new-mother angst that spawned this blog. So I have a separate writing blog in the works, which hopefully will be ready to launch in the new year.

This links in to another realisation I’ve had, about what it is that ties together all the stuff on this blog that isn’t about writing – and that is, surprise surprise, linked closely to that sense of creeping armageddon too.

It’s all about changing the world, basically. About nurturing a new generation – as a parent and a teacher – that will do things differently. Do things better. And I think I want to explore this more explicitly, with a blog dedicated to this idea of child rearing as a quiet and determined revolution.

It fits quite neatly with all my thoughts already about parenting and education, but I think the time has come to own that side of me too – not just to voice my thoughts and apologise afterwards for failing to embrace the status quo.

So.

Change is afoot.

Time to silence that demon who has taken a break from criticising my writing to laugh at me for believing that I can make a difference, however small that difference might be.

Because if not me, who? And if not now, when?

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Stolen moments

I had such a lovely writing day today.

I don’t take any of my writing time for granted: it took years for me to pluck up the courage to put pen to paper at all, and when I was teaching full time I rarely had the headspace to write anything longer than flash fiction, or sometimes a bad poem.

Getting stuff written has moved much higher up my list of priorities since I became a mum, but between entertaining a three year old and a growing smorgasbord of employment it can still be hard to find the time. I’m still working on making mornings work, and otherwise guiltily catching up during Arthur’s afternoon nap when I should really be focusing on the rest of my to-do list.

Today, though, was different.

I dropped Arthur off at forest school at 9.15. That may seem like an innocuous statement, but it was actually the first time we’d left him with anyone other than my folks, and the first time he’d been in an ‘educational setting’ for longer than the hour his gym class lasts. I wasn’t worried: the couple of sessions I’ve been to with him convinced me that it was exactly the sort of environment I wanted him to be spending his time in. Still, though, his wobbling lip and wide eyes almost weakened my resolve.

But I have a deadline to keep. And I’ve already put it back twice.

I wandered off through the little village of Stoke Gabriel, heading for a cafe by the waterfront. It was such a beautiful morning that I decided to start off outside, pitching myself up with my laptop on a bench overlooking the weir. There’s definitely a lot to be said for not being tied to my desk.

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After the first few hundred words, I decided I needed a coffee. So inside, for a flat white and a glass of water and a few more hundred words.

Then when I hit a wall again, I went for another meander. I didn’t really know where I was going, but I figured it would be difficult to get lost. I found a bench, up above the road with a view down towards the river, just at the point when the next flash of inspiration hit, so I stayed there for a while.

My last port of call was a pub, for a pint of lime and soda and a little burst of internet. Despite being connected to the world I still managed to get something written, ending my morning’s mobile session at 2,669 words.

What was especially wonderful was that I hadn’t had to rush. I had almost four hours of writing time in total, broken up by walks to kick my brain into gear again. And in that time I could let my mind wander too, and find new ideas in my daydreams.

I’m not sure how often I will have days like today – in the time I was gifted or the headspace to use it well – but I am grateful for this one I had.

And, at the end of it, I am that little bit closer to achieving my goal…

 

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Together we are stronger

Whilst momentum gathers for the kids’ strike on 3rd May, there are still a lot of parents who are undecided. Unsure if they are the sort of people who do this sort of thing, unsure if they or their kids will be punished for taking a stand, unsure if the issues at stake actually effect them very much at all.

One of the things I am hearing time and time again is that people love their schools. They don’t want to insult their kids’ teachers, they don’t want them to feel like they’re doing something wrong. But seriously – the time has come for us to act together. I remember – when I was teaching – having conversations with colleagues despairing over the negative impact of the Key Stage 3 SATs. We longed for parents to recognise how counterproductive this whole process was for their children, to petition us to stop the tests, to refuse to send their children into school. But they never did.

Fast forward ten years, and I am thrilled to see parents making their voices heard to say enough is enough. I am a parent now, too: and whilst my son is still a few years away from the Key Stage 1 SATs that initially inspired this campaign, I am already concerned about their impact on his future education. So much so that, at the moment, I can’t see any other option but to homeschool.

It’s not just the SATs though. There is so much that has changed in education in the three years since I took a step away from teaching, so much that the Tories are getting wrong.

So if you’re doubting whether or not to take a stand, wondering whether or not it applies to you and your kids, then I ask that you take a few minutes to consider this.

1) I would fail the new Key Stage 2 SATs

I am 38 years old. I have an A* in GCSE English, and an A in A-Level. I taught English to secondary school students for over ten years, and was head of faculty for the last two of those. I am currently in the process of writing my third novel.

And yet, last weekend, I sat a sample SATs test, and I only managed to get 50%. It’s taken me this long to admit it, because on one level I am mortified. But actually – I had trouble even reading to the end of the questions without glazing over, and my considerable knowledge of the English language has taught me that many of the answers would most definitely be open to debate in the real world.

Which brings me to my next point…

2) The knowledge and skills our kids are being told to prioritise is almost entirely irrelevant

I am (thankfully for me) far from the only well-educated person to have taken these tests and be utterly humiliated. Teachers, academics, writers, and many more people who in theory should know better have fallen foul of the particular demands of these exams.

It’s not that the technicalities of grammar aren’t important – it’s just that there are so many different ways to learn about them than by being able to recall the ins and outs by rote.

It’s ok for us – we have already found our path in life, have already succeeded. But what of the ten year old who takes these tests and declares themselves a failure because they are not able to jump through this government’s spectacularly misplaced hoops? If this action were to spare just one child from that fate, then it would have been worth it.

And the fact is, our children are suffering.

So much so that…

3) The relentless assessment regime our kids are subjected to is starting to seriously effect their mental health

One in ten children in the UK is diagnosed with a mental health problem. That is an alarming statistic, by anyone’s standards.

It is a leap to say that this is entirely down to the assessment regime, but there is a general consensus that it is a major factor. It would be very hard not to jump to this conclusion when reading the many testaments from parents that have come out of the Let Our Kids be Kids campaign. There are so many heartbreaking stories, but just this one from a parent of a year 6 boy should be enough to make us want to act.

In fact things are getting so bad that questions are being raised about whether the way in which our children are being treated in the education system is in breach of their human rights. I would very much argue that it is, and cannot imagine subjecting my son to the situations being described by parents in just three years time.

He’s ok right now, but it is the world that he is entering into that scares me.

Which is why…

4) Even if your child is not yet old enough for SATs, now is the time to act

Very few protests have the potential to directly impact on the people who are taking a stand: it is future generations who will benefit most.

I’ve been discussing this this week with my soon-to-be-a-junior-doctor husband. The doctors on the picket lines, the ones resigning their posts and speaking out so eloquently, are not protecting their own interests. The people who will immediately be affected by the new contracts are final year medical students, like my husband, and all of the future doctors currently slogging their way through the training system. It is likely that all junior doctors will ultimately be affected, but the action they are taking at the moment has very little to do with them and everything to do with the bigger picture.

It’s not a direct parallel to the kids’ strike, but it’s not a million miles away either. The parents who initiated this whole campaign have children in year two. Those children will still, most probably, have to sit the tests this year (unless of course a miracle happens and Nicky Morgan actually listens). The children who will most benefit, though, are the children who are facing the SATs in the years to come.

The NUT are considering a boycott of the SATs for next year: they will be even more likely to act with the strength of the nations parents behind them.

And anyway…

5) It’s not just about the SATs

The pressures on the curriculum at all levels is completely squeezing out arts subjects. The proposal to force all schools to become academies is essentially a back door to privatisation where we lose all ownership and democratic control of our schools. The knock on effect of the raising of the bar at Key Stage 1 is that Early Years education as we know it is under threat. Teachers are feeling such despair at all of this that they are leaving the profession in droves.

And yet…

6) The government does not expect you to act

If you are sitting thinking that it’s not really about you, that there is nothing you can do to make a difference and that your kids seem ok right now so it might be better not to rock the boat, then you are doing exactly what the government wants you to do.

And if you are not that bothered by the points that I’ve made above, then fair enough. But if you think our kids – your kids – deserve better, then maybe now is the time to make a stand.

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There are 16,743 people behind the Let Our Kids be Kids campaign on Facebook, and that is growing by the second. News outlets across the country are starting to take notice of the movement that is emerging. In my small town alone I know that there are two major television news stations planning to cover the events of the day.

And the question I would ask you is, what would you like to show them? Would you like them to see just a few parents out there making their voices heard, and silently applaud their intentions whilst not being quite brave enough to make the move yourself? Or would you like to see parents out there in droves, saying that our children are better than this? We are all better than this.

My son is only three, so we cannot strike as such. We will be doing what we do every day which is to seek out learning in the world around us. I am only hoping, on the 3rd of May, that we might come across you, and many, many other parents too, doing exactly that: and making the government fully aware of just how much their plans for our children are unwelcome.

 

In the absence of any real striking power my son and I, along with many other parents across the country, are participating in the #THISislearning campaign. Click here to find out more!

 

Going with the flow

The unschooling diaries: week nine

I’ve been mulling over various different options for this post today – Arthur’s delight in playing with sand at Paignton sea front, his growing interest in helping in the kitchen, the hours of roleplay that followed when we found a Buzz Lightyear costume in the charity shop – but it’s actually an almost inconsequential moment that I keep coming back to.

Leigh was late home on Friday, but with it being the weekend I figured we’d wait for him before pushing on to bed after Arthur had finished his dinner. That’s daddy time, generally – the chats about the day and the washing things and the stories – and both of them miss it on the odd occasions when he can’t be around.

I didn’t really have a plan – which could, at the end of a long day, have ended in disaster – but as it was distraction came in the most unexpected form. I’d been unpacking a delivery whilst Arthur ate his dinner, and it had arrived in a box filled with little polystyrene pellets. I normally whip them away from Arthur whenever I order from this company, but on Friday I guess I was feeling a bit more relaxed and so I let him explore. And the resulting play was, I think, the best fun he’d had all week.

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Things started pretty simply: having watched me unpack my order from the box, he proceeded to fill it with all of his precious things and offer it to me as a present.

Then once I’d gone through and admired each of his ‘gifts’, he decided that he wanted to see what it was like in there himself.

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Then of course came the tipping out, and the moment when on another day I might have put a halt to all of it. The tuff spot comes in handy for that – even if it didn’t contain the pellets for long…

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He piled them up and drove his diggers into them, threw them in the air to see how they fell, smooshed them and squeezed them and generally just experimented with this new material that had previously been off limits.

And whilst he played I sat and watched and laughed, until his daddy arrived at the door and came in to find us giggling in the midst of a pile of mess. Fortunately he got it too.

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I couldn’t tell you exactly what Arthur learnt from this little bit of unplanned and unstructured play, but still it felt important: to give him permission to go a little bit wild at the end of the day, to go with the flow even if a part of me was raising some serious eyebrows, to let him lead and explore and make us both laugh.

As much as it’s great to have some carefully thought out activities on hand too I think it is moments like this that remind me why I am leaning towards unschooling, and the freedom it gives my son to be who he wants to be.